Treasure thieves’ museum visit was quick, say police

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Thieves who broke into a museum to steal Chinese treasures worth £2m were in and out in as little as one minute, the detective leading the inquiry has said.

The raiders spent 40 minutes creating a hole in an outside wall at Durham University’s Oriental Museum late last Thursday night before making straight for an 18th century jade bowl and a Dehua porcelain figurine.

Police have arrested five people from the West Midlands in connection with the incident but have not recovered the items, which are thought to have been stolen to order.

The bowl dates from 1769 and has a Chinese poem written inside, while the figurine is of seven fairies in a boat and stands about 12in (30cm) high.

Both are from the Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, and their total value is estimated at about £2m.

Detective Superintendent Adrian Green reckoned the burglars spent between one and two minutes inside the museum once they forced their way in.

“It seems very clear that this was a well-planned, highly organised break-in.

“They have spent around 40 minutes creating a hole in an outside wall and, when it has been big enough, they have entered the gallery and made straight for these two items,” he said.

“I am sure this job has been planned for quite some time and I would think the artefacts have been stolen to order, for someone who has already identified a potential market.”

One man, a 27-year-old from Walsall in the West Midlands, was arrested on suspicion of assisting an offender and is being held at a police station in County Durham.

Four other people from the same area – men aged 56, 41 and 36 and a 34-year-old woman – were arrested at the weekend on suspicion of conspiracy to commit burglary.

Together with a 27-year-old Walsall man, they have all been released on police bail pending further inquiries.

It is feared the artefacts may have been spirited out of the UK and sold to an international buyer.

A Durham Police spokesman added: “Police have put all ports on alert in case attempts are made to smuggle them out of the country.”